Monday 1 December 2008

Coalition? Why not merger?

Sunder's thoughts on possible future Labour-Lib Dem coalitions prompts me to offer some not entirely tongue-in-cheek thoughts about another, long-term possibility: merger.

Of course, there are party tribalists in both parties who oppose this and they will make sure that it probably never happens. But as someone who has spent time in both parties, without any substantive change of views, I think its worth at least setting out the case for why a merger might, in the long-run, make a kind of sense.

Basically, it is hard to see what the big philosophical difference between Labour and the Lib Dems is. State socialism - a planned economy based on direct state control of economic activity - is, thankfully, no longer a Labour aspiration. Like the Liberals of old, Labour wishes to advance egalitarian objectives within the framework of a regulated market economy. Indeed, in some areas, such as 'asset-based welfare', Labour now does a much better job of advancing radical liberal economic ideas than the Lib Dems do.

On the other hand, notwithstanding the recent efforts of Clegg and co. to reposition the Lib Dems to the right on tax policy, the Lib Dems remain essentially a party of the centre-left on the economy. In short, both parties share a progressive vision on the economy which includes markets, an active state, and efforts to spread and democratise property ownership.

One might argue that there is a difference on civil liberties, and I think there is a difference in party cultures here (one which entirely favours the Lib Dems). But this difference can be overstated: the Labour government's often draconion stance on civil liberties is one that worries many Labour party members as much as it does Lib Dem members.

And, to the extent that there are differences in culture between the two parties, it is possible that merger could draw constructively on these differences. The greater Lib Dem sensitivity to civil liberties might infuse the merged party. At the same time, Labour's political culture could help infuse a merged party with a greater sensitivity to issues of class than the Lib Dems sometimes show.

So: why not merger?


donpaskini said...

Hi Stuart,

What would you see as being the advantages of a merger between Labour and the Lib Dems?

Some disadvantages which spring to mind:

- There are a lot of Lib Dem voters who would immediately stop supporting a Labour/Lib Dem party (e.g. in the urban areas where the Lib Dems are the home for affluent, centre-right voters). Similarly, a Labour Party which pitched its policies much more towards the liberal middle class would also lose a bunch of its support. A merged party might, therefore, end up with less support and fewer activists than the Labour Party does at the moment.

- There would be the question about what to do about the union link. Is what you are thinking of basically the SDP mark 2?

Sunder Katwala said...

Hi Stuart

Blimey! That will teach me to be more controversial next time, to prevent being outflanked. We are all for freethinking debate among Fabians, though I can imagine other Fabians having a more tribal or partisan response. And I hadn't known you were an ex-LibDem member (though there are quite a lot of people who have made that journey in one direction or the other).

I appreciate yours is slightly tongue-in-cheek and slightly not and you ask a serious question as to what the objection would be.

So let me concede the point that I do not personally think either that there are fundamental philosophical differences between the two progressive parties (though others might want to argue that there are).

Rather there are a series of differences in history and tradition, ethos and culture, as well as in current policy. These are narrower than they once were (though they are also perhaps wider in 2008 than they were around 1995-97: depending on taste that could be about Labour's record in power and perceived illiberalism, and/or the LibDems' perceived shift right under Nick Clegg on tax, or both).

The objection is political. You can't have a marriage without consent on both sides. It is difficult to see there being such consent in the foreseeable future (whether or not that is a good or bad thing).

There are very significant political barriers to any form of cooperation, well short even of coalition still less merger. One part of that is that the smaller party is going to have a fear of being swallowed up: eg Blair at times told Ashdown he wanted merger, and that was dangerous to Ashdown.

There are many good reasons for more dialogue - including your point that engaging on those differences that exist could be mutually beneficial. While some of the differences may be more rhetorical, there is something underlying them - Labour's greater commitment to collectivism; LibDem scepticism of the active state. But I agree with you on both points: that Labour needs to be more liberal, and that the LibDems place too little emphasis on inequalities which are structured by class.

So I think it is a shame that dialogue is more difficult than it might be. But the idea that could be a forerunner to a merger probably makes it still more difficult still. That is a point of political strategy or tactics, rather than high principle. But it is the political barriers (not least the role of the unions, for example, as donpaskini says; the views of MPs, activists and members on both sides, as well as the massive organisational upheavals of doing more than cooperating as separate parties) which would make this almost certainly a purely theoretical debate for quite some time to come.

Tom said...

All fair points above regarding why this is unlikely to happen.

But I would be quite happy with this. Subject to one caveat.

The unions must retain a decent degree of power. I know that this was partly behind the SDP split, but it's largely behind my wanting to stick with Labour.

Without any kind of social force behind them, the Lib Dems are an artificial party, alienated from the real world. They don't have a large enough bedrock of support to win, and their ideas are largely based upon an intangible natural law approach to individual rights, or a kind of 'wouldn't it be nice if' outlook on the world.

I don't necessarily disagree with much of liberalism. But I question where it comes from, and where it is going.

Merseymike said...

I've been a member of both parties as well, and am now in neither...I'd say I am a social democrat, and the problem I have with the LD's is that the current ascendancy is far too liberal, economically - and the same can be said for Labour!

I'd like a proper social democratic party back again....

Stuart White said...

Many thanks to those who commented on this post. I'm persuaded that, as a practical proposition, merger is not only (obviously) unfeasible but probably undesirable. Indeed, following Sunder's argument, I can see that even talking about merger, albeit with tongue-somewhat-in-cheek, might well be an obstacle to more feasible forms of cooperation.

I suppose all I really want to claim is that, given the underlying philosophical similarity between the two parties, co-operation - governing coalitions, electoral alliances - can make sense. As many people have long argued, we need to ove beyond the mind-set of 'hegemonic Labourism' which sees progressive politics in terms of Labour winning Parliamentary majorities and rebuilding society using a centralised state machine, to a progressive vision which treats multi-sited coalition and alliance across social democrats, Liberals and Greens as the norm.